Samuel M. Brown is a medical researcher, ICU physician, historian of religion and culture, and friend to many at the Juvenile Instructor. Today he fields our questions on his recent foray from academic research into devotional writing for an LDS audience. In particular we asked him about the significance of history for that kind of enterprise. This is Part 1 of a 2-Part feature. [For Part 2, see here.]
1. After publishing In Heaven as It Is on Earth with Oxford in 2012 you’ve done some devotional writing. There was the article on adoption in BYU Studies, and now there’s your book through the Maxwell Institute: First Principles and Ordinances. What brought that shift about?
No shift, really. I’m always translating. In my day job, I think a lot about the nature of communication and audience. Take a simple example: if I have something to say to other researchers or physicians, I use one pattern of communicating; when I have to say the same thing to patients or families, they require that I use different words and framing to express the exact same concepts. As a consequence, I’m always thinking how to translate medical ideas into lay language. My devotional writing has been a parallel activity: it’s me trying to speak as a practicing Mormon to other practicing Mormons about the technical material I discovered in the writing of In Heaven. I translate in medicine because patients deserve to be treated with respect, a respect that requires that they are equal partners in communication. I wrote First Principles out of a similar sense of obligation. I feel like I owe it to my coreligionists to speak to more than just other academics. It’s the same impulse that had me teach at an EFY conference back when I was in college. (That fact is still the strangest entry on what would be my complete CV if I included all the minor detours.) Charles Finney’s “new measures,” updated for the Mormon Culture Region ca. 1995, didn’t come naturally to me, but it felt important to at least try to communicate with regular church members. EFY and I went our separate ways after a single, awkward pas de deux, but that sense of obligation hasn’t let go of me in the intervening decades.
2. How did you decide on the Maxwell Institute press for First Principles? What was your experience working with the MI’s staff?
I pitched the book to Deseret Book, and they considered it at length. They liked the theology but ultimately decided that they couldn’t make a business case for it. (I think a lot of what’s seen as “censorship” with Deseret Book has more to do with accountants than hierarchs—most book-buyers aren’t drawn to complicated theological works.) I approached Maxwell Institute because I like them as people and admire their goals. I also loved Adam’s Letters book and thought that First Principles would fit well in the series that he inaugurated. The people at Maxwell Institute have all been great to work with, and I would heartily recommend them for Mormon intellectuals writing books to other Mormons.
3. Inquiring minds want to know: You’re an ER trauma doctor doing medical research, a cultural historian producing historical scholarship, and now a writer of Mormon devotional literature. How on earth do you write so much?
First, a clarification. I’m mostly a medical researcher in critical care. That’s what occupies the vast majority of my time and most of my writing. I find that my clinical work as an intensive care unit (ICU) physician restores me, even if my occasional weeks on clinical service are incredibly hectic. (Note that the ICU is not the ER—ICU is where people with acute, serious illness go to receive life support treatments; ER is a kind of urgent care clinic with advanced capacity that also stabilizes and then plugs sick people into the right doctors and floors in a hospital if they’re too sick to be safe at home. I’m an ICU physician.) On the question of how much I write, I think it’s a combination of profound, maybe pathological, restlessness coupled with relentless self doubt. I don’t know how not to write; I get nervous and downcast when I’m not writing something (again, usually it’s scientific research). When I thought I was going to be a fictionist a decade ago, I wrote 20 bad short stories and a couple of terrible novels in two years. I get edgy to the point of distraction by things (TV, movies, sports, meetings) that should be relaxing or engaging; the only way I can pay attention is by reading or writing at the same time. I wrote First Principles, for example, during Sunday School and Elders Quorum in 2012.
I also developed a practice in medical school of what I call “interstitial” writing. I have a manuscript in my pocket available for editing when I’m walking or taking an elevator or riding a train or sitting in a waiting room. I write a lot in those interstices of the day. Most of the time these days it’s biomedical writing, but on Sundays the interstitial project is religious writing of some sort. I also think editors are crucial. They break into the writer’s solipsism and force greater clarity through the intrusion of another sensibility. Without an editor, a writer is driving blind, drunk, or both. I use editors for all of my books and, as my time for writing outside biomedicine gets progressively more limited, I’m considering using them more for articles. Editors not only improve quality, they also improve efficiency. If the cost is prohibitive, it may be worth thinking through some sort of barter or swapping of editing with other writers, but I think it’s foolish and narcissistic to believe that one can write well without an editor.